Saturday, May 7, 2022

Abortion: Only For Those Who Need It!

NOTE: This post contains my opinions on Catholicism based on my experiences as a child in the 1960's and 70's. Take what you like and leave the rest. I mean no disrespect to anyone who is happy with their faith, but the Supreme Court leak has shaken me to my core and dredged up some old demons. 

In 1977 I was a senior in high school. Roe v. Wade was four years old, and the Catholic Church was hopping mad. At the end of that school year I would finally break free from the prison I had been in for twelve years. But they weren't done with me yet.

For those twelve years, all us good little Catholic girls and boys were marched to church on the first Friday of every month and for various religious holidays to pray for our miserable souls and beg God's forgiveness. I had stopped going to church on Sundays when I was eleven. There were no adults at home to force me, but of course it was near impossible to get out of those perp walks with the rest of my sinning classmates and armed guards nuns keeping watch. We weren't angels, but it was drilled into our heads that we were definitely sinners. After all, we were born in sin thanks to some chick with an apple who took some bad advice from a talking snake and convinced the guy from whose rib she was created to go along with her. We were screwed from the start, and only the grace of God would heal us. But the nuns never explained exactly what that meant. They called it a 'mystery'. All I knew is that I couldn't find it, and by the time I was a senior, I didn't give a shit. Drugs and alcohol were making me feel a whole lot better than the Act of Contrition ever could. God hadn't helped me all the times I cried out in the night, dutifully said my prayers at mass or a zillion Hail Marys after confession, or brought in all the change from my piggy bank to 'buy' starving babies 'over there' in some nameless country while my own refrigerator sat practically empty. No, grace seemed to only be attainable by real saints who were burned at the stake or crucified or shot through with arrows like poor St. Sebastian over there.

I remember the priests at mass telling us to pray for all the unborn children. "Wait a minute, what about me? Who's praying for me?" Surely the nuns knew my home life was a train wreck, they must have known how bad it was. Why weren't they praying for meWhy weren't they helping me!? I guess all of my problems were my own fault because, you know, ORIGINAL SIN!!!

So, on a particular spring day in 1977, our church decided to hold a special 'pro-life' mass that all the students in my high school were supposed to attend. I was told by my art teacher (who was one of the coolest people I knew at the time and was just following orders), that senior AP art students were to create anti-abortion signs. My hackles went up. Until that point, none of my friends ever had to make that extremely difficult choice (that I knew of), but there were a couple of scares. And no one—especially a bunch of men and women hiding behind robes of hypocrisy—was going to force me to take a public stand against something as profound as bodily autonomy. What to do? 

The words came to me pretty quickly. I grabbed a piece of poster board and a marker and wrote:

Only for those who need it!

I don't remember going to the mass or what happened to that poster, but I do remember two of my very good friends refused to attend. They were suspended and their parents were called. Heathens!

Over the years, I tried a few times to return to the church because my connection with my higher power was, and still is, very strong, but each time, I was met with acute hypocrisy. I tried to focus on that relationship, but the priest sex abuse scandal was the final straw. To be fair, there are many Christian organizations that do tremendous work helping others, and with the majority of Americans supporting abortion, it's safe to say that not every Christian wants to return to the days of Hester Prynne. Along the way I found one priest—one—at a particular church who made a point of saying at the end of every mass, this is the church of Jesus Christ, and all are welcome whether straight, gay, married, divorce, black, white, yellow, pink or blue. That's what Jesus would have said. That is true Christianity.

I think about my own daughter at the dawn of her adult life, and I am grateful that we live in a state (NJ) that respects the right of women to make their own healthcare decisions. I think about the women—and men—I know who have had to make that terribly difficult decision because they were not in a space to raise a child. And while the Christian right wrong touts it as the killing of a human being, isn't it also a death—albeit a slow, painful one—to bring a human being into a world where they will not—for whatever reason—be able to live a full, productive life?

While I was born into a loving household, that safety and security dissolved very quickly and life was dark and scary for many years. There should have been social services to help me and my siblings, but there weren't. And now, almost 50 years later, the wealthiest nation in the history of this planet still does not have an adequate social safety net to help women, children and families living on the edge because a very vocal minority has gamed the system in their favor and those in the majority seem to be afraid to offend them.

The US already leads the world's wealthiest nations in maternal mortality, and the states most likely to ban abortion are also least likely to provide adequate, affordable healthcare, including contraception, pre- and postnatal and infant/child healthcare. Pregnancy is a 50-50 operation, yet women are blamed. We—like Eve—are the original sinners and we must pay while men still get their Viagra. As Abraham Lincoln said in his famous anti-slavery speech, "A house divided against itself cannot stand... this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free."

If this Supreme Court decision goes through, this nation will have come full circle. The slavery of all women will be legal. Forced childbirth is slavery. Period.

Artwork by me

Mad? Me too. 


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Remembering All That Was Lost On 9/11

Photo credit: Me taken in the mid 80's
Twenty years ago today the world as we knew it came to a screeching halt. It also marked the very first day of my teaching career. Six years ago today I wrote the this piece. At the time, public employees—especially teachers—were under attack from both Republicans AND some Democrats, and my family was preparing to say our final farewells to my cousin, Tony, a retired firefighter who was there for me SO many times in my life when I needed strength and wisdom, so my emotions were raw.

I repost this piece every year on 9/11 as a tribute to the world I knew as a child and as an adult, to all the lives lost and to those whose job it is to protect so that others might live.

I probably won't be watching any of the TV coverage. That day altered my DNA so I feel it in every fiber of my being. For all those who were directly affected by that day, I wish you peace and comfort on this day and every day.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Four Back-to-School Lessons From COVID Teaching

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

June 18, 2021 was the last day of school for my district for the 2020-2021 school year. As is my school's tradition, the entire staff gathered on the blacktop to wave goodbye to our students as their busses rolled out. I cried—not sentimental tears. No, these were tears of release—of grief, pain, anxiety, depression and anger. The long nightmare of COVID teaching was finally over! 

Or so I thought...

Come September, I will be starting my 20th year in this profession, and this past school year was by far the worst. Worse than my very first day of teaching which was September 11, 2001, worse than Super Storm Sandy, way worse than mold outbreaks, rodent infestations or working without a contract. I’m a pretty tough cookie, but I won’t lie, it broke me. I spent many days in tears. I told myself I couldn’t do it, I was horrible, a failure. And it wasn't just me. So many of my colleagues—including veteran teachers—were going through the exact same thing.

It wasn’t the actual teaching that got me. When I’m in front of students, I’m in my zone. It was everything else: technology, software, constant schedule/rule/procedure changes, switching and combining cohorts, muting/unmuting, trying to keep 5-year-olds socially distanced, endless Zoom meetings, endless paperwork, AWOL students, the tsunami of emails that flooded my inbox, and the seemingly endless stream of information that I was required to ingest, digest and regurgitate into one or more parts of my instructional day. I struggled to sleep and woke up to immediate panic attacks. There were days when ice cream calmed my nerves. I became an expert at baking—and eating—chocolate chip cookies. The Dave Matthews song, Too Much, was a constant ear worm: 
Straight in, suck up and go,
Cool it, swallow, swallow
Breathe deep, take it all
It comes cheap
Push it through the doors
Because in between the lines
I'm gonna pack more lines
So I can get in...
I eat too much
I drink too much
I want too much

Too much 

Imagine having a day and a half to figure out how to ride a bike upside down and blindfolded, then having to teach it to 400 students under the age of ten when you haven't really mastered it yourself. That's what March 2020 - June 2021 was like. Oh, and I got COVID-19 and was pretty sick for a few months, so there's that.

This was just my experience. All over the country, hundreds of thousands of educators were going through their own kind of COVID hell. I read their stories and tried to write about them, but it was all I could do to get to work on time and not crawl into bed before the sun went down, let alone try to blog. But over the summer I had some time to rest, recharge and reflect. Here—in no particular order—are my four takeaways from teaching in a pandemic: 

1. Unions are vital to the survival of the 99% 
Healthcare workers, first responders, retail and other frontline workers (including teachers) have been fried, burned out and way overworked during COVID, but educators took an enormous amount of heat because we dared to demand safe teaching and learning conditions in order to return to in-person instruction (imagine that?). History is rife with stories of workers who suffered and died because of unsafe working conditions and individual workers who tried and failed to improve their conditions, but it's also filled with stories of workers who organized, unionized and rallied to make changes for the better. That's what teachers all over the country did (some were more successful than others) because they know that better teaching conditions lead to better learning conditions, which leads me to... 

2. Biden's infrastructure bill is critical to the advancement of the poor and middle class
The bill includes $100 billion for school upgrades from Pre-K to college, and $100 billion for expanded broadband access. As The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health states on its COVID-19 webpage, "Schools can be made safe, but they are not inherently safe." So far, in the 21st Century, the United States has not only landed rovers on Mars, but flown drones there, created self driving cars, and cell phones that can manage almost every aspect of our daily lives. But we send too many children to schools that rival those of third-world nations. In the wealthiest nation on earth, public schools are far too often the place where students go for stability, including things like food, heat, medical care and emotional security, and far too many schools are sorely lacking in all of them. 

Every single school in this country should be structurally sound, clean, safe, have fully operational windows, water fountains, toilets, cafeterias and HVAC systems, with the emphasis on AC. I don't care that you went to school without air conditioning at the dawn of time so kids today should just suck it up. I did, too. And you know what? It was awful—and it still is awful! Two years ago, the temperature in my room one September day was almost 92º: 

Actual picture I took of my portable thermostat, 9/19

I dare you to try to teach kids anything meaningful in those conditions, especially when some are coming from third floor walkups that are no better. When the health department issues heat advisories and air quality warnings and there's no air conditioning, teaching and learning are compromised. So is health. And we know that low-income students and students of color in urban neighborhoods are more likely to attend schools that are infrastructurally compromised. The pictures below, posted on Twitter by the Paterson Education Association, show the conditions in one of the district's schools as staff were being forced to return to in-person instruction last year. It's the fifth largest district in New Jersey, one of the wealthiest states in the US that also happens to have the best public education system in the country. If this is the best, can you imagine the worst?

Despite a tough fight by the PEA to keep schools closed during the height of the pandemic, they reopened to this:
As 900 of Paterson’s 29,000 students came back to school buildings this week, they were greeted with dead rodents, cockroaches, standing water, mold, broken air conditioners, and filth. One student classroom even had a visit from a pigeon. Bathrooms were missing paper products, soap, and have disgusting toilets that were not cleaned since March of 2020. Many windows won’t open. The sinks either clog, spout brown water, or both. Unfortunately, the district lacks the will to change anything, sending a destructive message to students that they are not worth better conditions.

Earlier this year, Dr. Chris Carroll, Pediatric Critical Care Physician at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tweeted an important thread on racism, COVID-19 and children with asthma: 

Sorry for the crop on the graph. It looks the same on Twitter.

Healthy teachers teach better; healthy kids learn better and have better attendance records. If the United States can afford to give tax breaks to the uber-wealthy, we can afford to make every school clean, safe and healthy. 

3. It should be pretty clear now that distance learning is no match for in-person instruction
During the height of pandemic learning, teachers all over the country reported the same thing: handfuls of virtual students that either never showed up for class or did so sporadically. Some never turned on their camera or would hand in no work. Others played with pets or toys, watched TV, ate, danced or otherwise fooled around. I had my own experiences with all of this. As frustrating as it was, it was also completely age-appropriate—at least at my level (K-4). Spend ten minutes in an elementary classroom and you will see a lot of energy and movement. They're little kids who should never be forced to sit in front of a computer for that many hours a day! If it was exhausting for us, can you imagine how awful it was for them?

I tried to keep a soft spot for parents who were as stressed and burned out as I was. Many just couldn't adequately monitor their child's learning while working from home. Other students did just fine. Those high-achievers can learn anything, anywhere, but they are not in the majority. The lesson here is that children—young children—need the structure and support that only brick-and-mortar schools give (I can't say the same for high school because I've never taught at that level). It's not just about the academics. Half of what we teach is social skills: how to get along with each other, how to function in society, how to share and take turns. And learning together helps students learn better. There were a couple of times when I forgot to end a Zoom class and I came back a little while later to find my students hanging out together, talking, laughing, sharing artwork they had done. Those kids were craving social interaction. Education is not just about academics; it's a huge part of a child's social/emotional development.

4. Put your oxygen mask on first
Every good teacher knows that some days we just aren't on our game. For whatever reason things didn't go as we hoped. We are taught to reflect, regroup and prepare to meet the next day with a renewed sense of purpose and lessons learned. This is how I'm heading into this coming school year. We are not back to normal yet, and things could change on a dime, so I have to be ready. But no matter what happens, my students will always come second. Yes, you read that right, second—after me. 

Flight attendants always teach us to put our oxygen mask on first before we help others. If we're not breathing, we're no good to anyone. If I am stressed, sleep-deprived, anxious or panicked, I am no good to my students. I cannot and will not go through another school year like last year so I made a vow to myself that this year I will take care of myself first and foremost. If not, I will wind up smack-dab in the middle of that bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough. 

Things I have promised myself for the coming school year:
  • I will put my health and wellbeing first. This includes working a reasonable number of hours every day and giving myself weekends off.
  • I will provide my students with a safe, nurturing environment in which to express themselves creatively. If I achieve that, nothing else matters.
  • I will work verrrrry hard at not sweating the small stuff. PS: it's all small stuff.
To all my education friends: I wish you a healthy, happy and productive school year. To all my parent and advocate friends: I wish the same to you, and I thank you for all you do every day to help students and teachers succeed.

Oh yea, and if you haven't done so already, get yer damned shot! Vaccines save lives. 


Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Letter To My Students

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash
Dear Students,

Oh how I have missed you! I've missed your noise and your chaos and your smiles which are hidden behind masks, and your laughter and your hard work, and even your frustrations and tears. I have missed your creativity and how you never cease to amaze me with it. I have missed your fearlessness and your fearfulness, your good choices and your not-so-good ones. I have missed you because without you, there is no school. 

Many people who don't know much about what you and I do together call you 'lost'. But, you are not lost. Far from it! All of you who have diligently showed up on Zoom every day have been working so hard learning how to use computers and software in ways we teachers never imagined. You've been taking more responsibility for your learning, working independently, and learning from this global experience! 

Some of you have really struggled with this, and I want you to know that you are not alone. So many other students and, yes, even teachers (myself included), are struggling too. This is not easy work we are doing. It's really hard sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, not being able to talk to friends or eat together in the cafeteria or enjoy assemblies or play at recess.

And to those of you who have not been with us, you are not 'lost' either. You have always been in our hearts. You have always been on our minds. We have always been searching for you, and hoping to see your face once again. We've been reaching out to you. We've been trying our best to find you and bring you back. We know you've been home, we know you've been struggling. We know your families have been struggling, too. This is all so hard

But you will survive—all of you will. In fact, you will do more than just survive. You will thrive because we, your teachers, will help you, because that's our job.

We will not let you fall. We will hold you up and lift you up and support you in any way we can. And just like any child who has suffered from a debilitating, devastating disease—one so terrible that they couldn't even work with a tutor—you will come back. And you will be strong and you will be healthy and you will be knowledgeable. You will know how to read and write and do math. You will know how to make art and music and play sports. You will know how to speak another language—maybe not fluently, but you will learn. You will know how to do all the things you hope and dream to do. You just have to believe in yourself, believe that we will help you, and be willing to put in the effort.

You know, for a long time, those people who don't know much about what we do have been trying to stuff your heads with all sorts of information that maybe you're just not ready for yet. They want you to read and write and do math and take tests before many of you even know how to tie your shoes! That's crazy! Maybe the one good thing that will come out of this pandemic is that they will stop trying to force-feed you and just let us, your teachers, meet you where you are. 

We are almost done with this crazy school year, and many of you will be coming back to school before the end of this month! I am so excited! We will get through this together. There will be laughter, fun, excitement and learning. You will see your friends and share your experiences, and little by little, we will leave that nasty Covid-19 in the dust. If you're feeling stressed, anxious or worried, know that you are not alone and you will have a lot of support. You are stronger than you realize and braver than you think. And I am so proud of you!


Ms. Corfield

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The 'New' Normal Post-Covid - Are YOU Ready?

If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. If you put a frog in tepid water and slowly raise the heat, it will boil to death. - Unknown

Photo Credit: Nick Fewings

Covid-19 has been raising the heat on all of us for a year. Stress, depression and anxiety have paralyzed millions. Personally, I've battled all three. As someone who lived much of my life in a state of chronic stress, I very quickly became that frog again and didn't realize it until I was almost ready to be served as an appetizer. I was sleeping either too much or too little, watching the same ten pounds turn my bathroom scale into a seesaw, and despite having almost twenty years of teaching experience under my belt, there were days when I just burst into tears because virtual teaching is just. so. hard. Even though I had Covid-19 and its accompanying brain fog, I've also had what Ellen Cushing, writing in The Atlanticcalls the Covid "fog of forgetting" that has crept into our brains simply from living in quasi-isolation for so long:

Everywhere I turn, the fog of forgetting has crept in. A friend of mine recently confessed that the morning routine he’d comfortably maintained for a decade—wake up before 7, shower, dress, get on the subway—now feels unimaginable on a literal level: He cannot put himself back there. Another has forgotten how to tie a tie. A co-worker isn’t sure her toddler remembers what it’s like to go shopping in a store... 
“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.” Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” said Georgia Tech neuroscientist Tina Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory. 
That stress doesn’t necessarily feel like a panic attack or a bender or a sleepless night, though of course it can. Sometimes it feels like nothing at all. “It’s like a heaviness, like you’re waking up to more of the same, and it’s never going to change,” [Community College Professor Jen] George told me, when I asked what her pandemic anxiety felt like. “Like wading through something thicker than water. Maybe a tar pit.” She misses the sound of voices. 
“We’re trapped in our dollhouses,” said Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist from Ottawa, who studies video games. “It’s just about surviving, not thriving. No one is working at their highest capacity.” (emphasis mine)

I've only written six blog posts in the past year. My brain just hasn't been functioning the way it used to. I've been too tired, too overwhelmed. I would start to write, but lose interest. Couldn't put a complete thought together. All I wanted to do was get in bed and binge-watch... anything. 

But, life is changing! The winter of our discontent will soon be over. With vaccines rolling out in ever-increasing numbers, we will soon be dining indoors, gathering in large crowds—and hugging! A return to normal? No. There will never be a 'return'; only a moving forward to create the new normal. And that process is bound to stir up all sorts of new fears as well. 

In her March 9th opinion piece in The Washington Post, Dr. Lucy McBride calls this FONO—Fear of Normal:

Trauma has a way of doing that to us. We’ve lost more than 500,000 lives in this country alone. We’ve suffered unprecedented economic, social and emotional upheaval. And regardless of our individual pandemic experience, each of us has faced some level of loss, grief and despair...
But now that we’ve adjusted to pandemic life — with its inherent struggle, stress, social isolation, emotional toll and hidden silver linings — it’s understandable to experience emotional whiplash even as trauma recedes.

When patients come to her with these symptoms, she helps them assemble a toolkit to help them cope which can include "breathing techniques, guided meditation, regular exercise, prioritizing sleep and spending time in nature, all of which tamp down stress hormones." 

My district is going back to full in-person teaching and learning later this month. I sometimes catch myself wondering, Have I forgotten how to teach? Will I be able to do it?  Yes, I tell myself, you will! It's like riding a bicycle. But while my mind knows this, my emotions are sending up flares and I have to pay attention. 

Instead of trying to fight the stress, anxiety and fear, I leaned in. I didn't berate myself for sleeping more, scrolling through Facebook more, watching more TV, and yes, eating more. But, I also started to read books more, meditate more and spend more time in nature, and slowly but surely, the fog has started to lift. Pounds can be lost, exercise can be done, activity can ramp up in a time that is right and gentle. There is no stopwatch, no one is breathing down my neck to 'fix' everything that went 'wrong' in this past year—except me.

While flinging open all our doors and having big parties just as the warm weather arrives sure sounds a lot more exciting and fun than meditating, we must remember that those tools help build and support the infrastructure that is our physical and emotional wellbeing, without which, we are running on pure adrenaline. And once that adrenaline is gone, we are left feeling shaky and weak. 

So, ease into this new normal. Be gentle with yourself in the coming months. As tragic as this past year has been, we are being given an opportunity to redefine what we want our futures to be. How will you write yours?

Photo Credit: Alfred Schrock

Friday, January 22, 2021

Implosion! New Jersey's Fitting Trump Sendoff

New Jersey's largest newspaper, The Star Ledger, is reporting that Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, is set for implosion on February 17th. After that date, all four of Trump's AC casinos—Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza, Trump World's Fair and Trump Marina—will officially be no more. 

Trump Plaza one month before it closed.  So classy. (Photo | Dan McQuade)


Casino implosion set for Feb. 17

Katie Kausch For The Star-Ledger

After one final delay, Trump Plaza has a new implosion date, Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small announced.

The implosion of the long-shuttered casino is now set for Feb. 17 at 9 a.m., Small said at a Thursday morning press conference. It was pushed back from a Jan. 29 implosion date earlier this month.

The delay was caused by a large concrete foundation that was originally unknown to demolition teams, licensing and inspection director Darryl Finch said at the press conference.

Pre-implosion demolition work remains underway, including drilling holes inside the structure to place dynamite, Finch said.

The implosion will impact a several- block area, and will include evacuation zones and areas where people are not allowed outside their buildings, Rick Bianchi with the Atlantic City Police Department said. Details on which blocks and buildings will be affected are not yet finalized.

An auction to push the button at the implosion fell apart after owner Carl Icahn objected, citing safety concerns, auctioneer Joseph Bodnar, owner of Bodnar’s Auction, told NJ Advance Media.

Meant to be a fundraiser to benefit the local Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City, Icahn has pledged to donate $174,000 to the organization to replace money lost in the cancellation.

Icahn Enterprises, run by conservative billionaire Icahn, took ownership of the building in 2016 after Donald Trump divested from the property.

Since the cancellation of the fundraiser, Hard Rock and Oceans casinos have each donated five rooms, to be auctioned off for overnight stays before winners can watch from a prime viewing slot at One Atlantic to benefit the organization, Small said. Donations for the Boys & Girls Club are also being collected.

For those who can’t bid on a room, Bader Field will be used as a viewing area, Small said. Watchers will be charged for parking and asked to watch from the safety of their cars.

“The city can’t be naive to think that no one will show up. It has nothing to do with the former president. If it was any building in the city being imploded, people will come,” Small said.

The casino has been an eyesore in Atlantic City for years, with discussions of an implosion dating to at least 2017. The casino shuttered in 2014 after about 30 years in business.

Contrary to what Trump may have led you to believe, he didn't sell his Atlantic City holdings; he lost them. Bigly. He filed for bankruptcy not once, not twice, not three times, but four times: in 1991, 2004, 2009 and 2014. Surprised? You shouldn't be. What is happening on February 17th is a fitting metaphor for how he left our country: broken, battered, bashed and deeply in debt.

I've written about Atlantic City before (herehere, here, here, here to name a few). And I've been there many times. Despite a poverty rate over 40%, it has a lot going for it: some of the best restaurants I've ever eaten in (The Knife and Fork, Docks Oyster House, Buddahkan, Los Amigos, Angelos Fairmount Tavern) a beautiful beach, a fabulous retail outlet center, and some very nice hotels. But for reasons beyond my bandwidth of fiscal understanding, 43 years of gambling revenue could never get it out from under its bad rap of a honky-tonk, low-life town where more dreams are lost than won, and that's devastatingly unfair to all the hard-working people who live and work there.

So, it's no surprise that the last vestiges of Donald Trump are a failed coup attempt on our nation's capitol and the implosion of one of his long-shuttered properties in the second poorest city in New Jersey.

If I didn't have to work that day, I'd be there in Atlantic City cheering on the implosion and the dream that will—hopefully—arise from its ashes.

Buh-bye, Donnie. Can't say we'll miss ya.

Note: All emphasis mine.

Friday, August 21, 2020

An Open Letter to Gov. Murphy on School Reopening

Dear Gov. Murphy,

Within the next two weeks, school districts across New Jersey will be reopening in some way, shape or form. And while every district's plans will, no doubt, look different, one thing is the same from High Point to Cape May: this is a hot mess. 

In March, you gave us a clear directive to prepare for 100% virtual teaching until the end of that month. Educators across the state rose to the challenge as you very sensibly guided us through the rest of the school year one month at a time, checking the spread of the Coronavirus and its impact on our state's population. During that time, we were able to hone our skills and fine-tune our plans to deliver the very best virtual curriculum we could. We were proud of what we were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, and I personally was so proud to count my governor, whom I supported from the get-go, right up there with Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one who took this pandemic seriously and took decisive steps to contain it despite the heavy criticism you faced. You did it right and your efforts paid off. 

But as spring rolled into summer, the numbers started to rise—especially in children. Just last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that "children and teenagers account for a growing share of coronavirus cases in Camden and Gloucester Counties, mirroring a national — and ominous — trend as young people rebel against social distancing rules, health experts say." 

Over the past few months, administrators, boards of education, community members and staff in every district have been working diligently on reopening plans (I was proud to serve on my district's reopening committee), the logistics of which often resembling a Rube Goldberg concoction. But now, with mere days until students arrive, many districts are ditching those plans and going 100% virtual—mine included—leaving parents and staff in the lurch as we all scramble to figure out how we are going to make it work in our homes and in our classrooms. Many districts have cited any or all of the following as their main stumbling blocks to reopening:
  • Back ordered PPEs
  • Inadequate HVAC systems and lack of air conditioning in many schools
  • Many classrooms without windows or operable windows 
  • Mold
  • Inadequate classroom space to properly social distance
  • Students having to eat in their classrooms
  • Inability to social distance students on busses
  • Staff members who are at high risk requesting medical leaves
  • Shortage of substitutes to fill those positions
  • Proper accommodations for students with special needs
  • Available staff to properly clean buildings at the end of the day
  • Inability of staff to clean equipment and certain classrooms in between classes
All of that costs money—which is in chronically short supply in many districts. Add to that the staggering cost of providing electronic devices to every student for home use, and a hybrid model just doesn't make sense. Where is this money supposed to come from? This is arguably the most expensive unfunded mandate ever imposed on schools.

Parents need to go back to work, children need to go back to school, teachers want to go back to school, but we cannot let the abject failure of leadership in Washington force us into reopening for in-person instruction when it is clearly not safe to do so. Yes, there will be learning loss, but what is the alternative? Is spreading this virus and risking the lives of more people worth that cost? If restaurants cannot be open for indoor dining, if gyms are still closed, if many businesses are still operating remotely, how can you, in good conscience, expect schools to reopen for in-person learning? Have you ever been in a kindergarten or preschool classroom? Do you know how much time teachers spend teaching those little ones about personal space, personal hygiene and keeping their hands to themselves? As you did in the spring, you must put the health and welfare of our students and staff above all else. New Jersey has come so far in beating back this menace. You can't ease up.

I am urging you to order all New Jersey schools to go to virtual instruction for at least the first two months of the school year with a plan to reassess at the end of October. During that time, I ask that you work with the state board of education to develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) goals, based on CDC recommendations, for every district to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect the health of our students and staff. 

Please, don't let New Jersey slide backwards. We can't afford to mess this up.